Rocking no more
Its eye on sports, CBS pulls plug on legendary WBCN
By James Reed and Erin Ailworth, Globe Staff | July 15, 2009
It was more than 40 years ago, on a March night in 1968, when WBCN-FM (104.1) decided to break from its classical music format. Instead of Bach, listeners that evening heard “I Feel Free,’’ by the Eric Clapton-led rock band Cream, and right then Boston’s local music scene was transformed.
Yesterday, it was upended yet again, by the same station.
CBS Radio Boston, which owns WBCN, announced it would pull the plug on the station, which helped make household names of some of the biggest musical acts to come out of Boston, so it could accommodate other changes in local radio.
Next month, a sports talk radio station, The Sports Hub, will replace the music station WBMX, or Mix 98.5 FM, adding a third sports radio show in a town that seems to have an insatiable appetite for all things sports. Mix 98.5 will then take its “modern rock, conservative format’’ to WBCN’s slot.
And WBCN, whose slogan, “The Rock of Boston,’’ had become as seminal as some of the performers the station championed early on – including Aerosmith, The Cars, J. Geils Band, U2, and Elvis Costello – will morph into an online-only station available at wbcn.com.
New sports talk station will take on WEEI.
It was stunning news for generations of Boston music fans, who grew up with the station at a crucial time in rock music’s evolution, and for local bands, who had come to rely on WBCN as the one place that might land them their big break. WBCN came of age with some of rock’s pivotal figures, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix, and its disappearance from the dial is as much a signal of the changing musical scene as it is of drastically changed listening habits. (One word: iPod.)
“Once their ratings started going down the tubes, I thought to myself, ‘Somebody’s not getting it in corporate,’ ’’ Charles Laquidara, one of WBCN’s quintessential personalities from 1969 to 1996, said from his home in Hawaii. On his Facebook page, he addressed WBCN’s fans: “It was a great station. It was also a great time in radio history. I know we can never go back to that, but there will be something someday.’’
Mark Hannon, senior vice president and market manager of CBS Radio Boston, said in an interview yesterday it is a “sad moment to see a station with 40-plus years of heritage coming out of format.’’ But, he said, “the rock genre in this marketplace is extremely crowded, and ’BCN has struggled in the past few years to stay competitive.’’
The decision, which will take effect Aug. 13, will ripple well beyond the airwaves, too, given the station’s longtime support for local bands.
In addition to “Boston Emissions,’’ ’BCN’s two-hour, weekly program showcasing local talent, the WBCN Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble has been a popular battle of the local bands since 1979. Occasionally, its winners went on to find national success. After winning the Rumble in 1983, ’Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann’s new-wave band, was signed to Epic Records; the cabaret-punk duo the Dresden Dolls emerged victors in 2003.
Anngelle Wood, who organized this year’s Rumble, said yesterday she was not sure of the event’s future. “Boston Emissions,’’ which she also hosts, will move to sister station WZLX in August.
The longtime ’BCN personality who became known simply as Oedipus said the loss of the station will cut deeper than some might realize.
“WBCN was a fabric of the community,’’ he said. “It was part of Boston, like the Red Sox. It was more than just music. It completely enveloped the lifestyle of people in Boston and the Northeast. And it no longer does that. It had to make this change. It’s reflected in the ratings.’’
Word of ’BCN’s demise was greeted with mixed emotions at competing stations, where program directors, many of whom grew up listening to ’BCN, said they’d been expecting the downfall. A Cornerstone Research Inc. report looking at men ages 18 to 49 in metro Boston shows ’BCN ranking in the number 11, 12, and 13 spots from January to May, with roughly 4 percent of the area’s listening market.
“The general public must be very surprised, but industry insiders have known they had their problems – let’s just leave it at that – for a number of years. So, we’re not really stunned,’’ said Ron Valeri, program director at WAAF and Mike FM. Still, he said it’s “a bittersweet victory.’’
At 101.7 WFNX, program director Keith Dakin recalled the heyday of WBCN, when personalities like Laquidara and Mark Parenteau graced the station’s airwaves.
“It’s great for us. We’ve lost an alternative rock competitor,’’ said Dakin. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s sad to lose a legendary rock station in this market, but as far as the competitive landscape, it’s great for a station like ’FNX.’’
Parenteau, a DJ at WBCN for 20 years, beginning in 1978, said that before corporate ownership, the station encouraged its on-air talent to be outrageous and play what they wanted.
“We didn’t make a lot of money, but we had a lot of freedom. We could play jazz, comedy, whatever,’’ Parenteau said. “But as we made more money, we had less freedom. It was like a deal with the devil.’’
Still, the station was enormously influential.
“If ’BCN added a band, 30 or 40 stations would add that band because we seemingly knew what we were doing,’’ he said. “The sort of station ’BCN used to be is definitely dead. Radio today is all driven by boards of directors looking at the stock market. They want the sure thing, and they want to play it over and over.’’
Before he was lead singer in the J. Geils Band, Peter Wolf was one of the founding DJs at WBCN. He started there in 1968, interviewing the likes of Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Sun Ra, and Roland Kirk. Wolf said he is neither surprised nor upset the station is going away. “For me, ’BCN ended a long time ago,’’ he said. “When it became corporatized, it lost the unique qualities that made it vital to the community.’’
Despite its founding in 1955 as a classical station, ’BCN became “the underground rock station in Boston,’’ said Scott Fybush, editor of NorthEast Radio Watch, an industry trade journal. “They were playing stuff that had no other home on the radio and people who had never had a reason to own an FM radio before were going out and buying an FM radio to hear this.’’
The station struggled for at least the last decade, propped up by its coverage of the Patriots and, at least for a time, Howard Stern’s syndicated show
Fybush called CBS Radio’s emphasis on building a sports station with Patriots coverage, a “smart move,’’ because it gives listeners something they can’t necessarily load onto their iPods – live coverage of games.
Of course, more sports and more talk means less rock for Boston listeners.
But Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, said for many around Boston, that change had already begun.
“The ’BCN that most people are going to be sad about losing this afternoon,’’ Ross said, “went away a while ago.’’
Mark Shanahan and Don Aucoin of the Globe staff contributed reporting.
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company